Sunday, August 22, 2010

Prophet and Prostitute (Hosea 1:2-3,10)

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” So he went and took Gomer, daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.

Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured or numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.”

Honest question for you this morning: how many of you noticed the sermon title on the church sign when you came in this morning, or at some other point during the week? How many of you were shocked to see the word “prostitute” on your church’s sign? How many of you showed up simply because you thought we might be talking about something scandalous or scintillating today?

Hosea is one of those books in the Old Testament that I believe even the most seasoned church folk among us could count the sermons they’ve heard from this book on one hand. When’s the last time you heard a sermon from the book of Hosea? When it comes down to it, we aren’t too familiar with this section of Scripture, which gives us all the opportunity to hear it with fresh ears. May we pray.

Summer is wedding season. I have done five weddings already since March, and I have Brian Neill and Emily Dywan’s wedding coming up in October. For those of you planning to get married soon and are thinking of asking me to do your wedding, let me just get it out there that in the last year I have become a big fan of the destination wedding. I’m just saying! Last year I got to spend the week in Ocean Isle beach for Emily and Jeff’s wedding, last month I got to spend time in Texas with the Meyers for Patrick & Missy’s wedding, and in October Brian & Emily are bringing me out to Lake Lure. So, destination wedding – I’m just saying!

Let me draw an analogy for you about weddings, and for those of you whose weddings I have done and whose weddings I will do, please recognize that what I’m about to say is, in no way, even remotely based on any of your weddings. Everyone clear on that?

It’s usually a hot afternoon, and the wedding doesn’t even start until 3 or 4. The guys have squeezed into a white shirt, a tie, and a suit, and you know it takes an act of God to get us to dress up on a Saturday. Everyone is milling around in the foyer, and you get in line to sign the guestbook. A young man wearing a tuxedo escorts you to your seat, and you begin to take notice of the other guests. Everyone exchanges polite glances and little hand waves. If you’re single, you’re scoping out the other single guests and trying to determine which one you’ll be asking to dance first when the reception really gets going. Guys have noticed an attractive young lady a few rows in front, but she’s sitting with a guy, and you’re trying to figure out, “Is that her boyfriend, her cousin, or her gay friend?”

Finally, the groom walks in, led by the pastor who nobody really notices because she or he looks pretty much like normal. But the groom looks nothing like the immature kid you remember. His hair is nicely trimmed and he’s even used product in it, he appears to have shaven this morning, and he’s wearing so much cologne the guests in the first four rows are gasping for air. The bridesmaids glide gracefully down the center aisle. Then, the organ swells, and everyone rises to their feet, and the bride comes in. Her dress is dingy, and her hair slightly unkempt. Her lipstick is a little too red, and she’s wearing a little too much blush. She stops in the middle of the aisle and grinds her cigarette into the carpet. As she walks by, the unmistakable scent of cheap liquor lingers behind her. The groom is still radiant, blissfully unaware that the guests sense something is amiss. This has to be the strangest wedding you’ve ever been too, including your hippie second-cousin who got married in a cranberry bog.

It’s the wedding of the prophet and the prostitute: Hosea & Gomer. Here are two people whose backgrounds could not have come from further extremes. Hosea and Gomer: the prophet and the prostitute, the man of God and the woman of the street, the respected and the rejected. To be certain, it’s an unlikely pair.

When it came to prophets, Hosea was a big one. He was a household name, and thousands of people a week tuned into his nationwide television broadcasts. Every preacher has a hot-button issue, and for Hosea, it was sexual sin. The people were constantly violating the boundaries given to them by God – sleeping around and even having relations with ill-reputed women who hung out near the main entrance to the temple.

And Gomer? She was one of those women at the entrance to the temple. Let me offer a footnote here. Prostitution is often described as the world’s oldest profession, and we find it practiced all over the world. Most begin young, and most sell their bodies for money, not because they enjoy what they do. In poor families around the world, there is no inheritance for the daughters to receive, and the daughters grow up and head off to the market for the day, and then return at night with food. Nobody talks about it, but the daughters have sold their bodies for food. I imagine Gomer was similar to these tragic people all over the world – a dejected shadow of a person for whom life had steadily gone from bad to worse. The lowest people in society used the services of such women – the women themselves were viewed as something slightly less than human.

Hosea will marry Gomer, and she will bear him a son, but it’s a tenuous relationship at best. Before too long, Gomer will desert her husband, and have two illegitimate children. Her family will beg her to stay with him, but her life will continue to sink lower and lower, down into the pits of despair, so far below rock bottom that you and I have no way of understanding her condition.

In the following chapters, we find her being sold into slavery at an auction. Can you just hear the taunts of the people around her? “She’s finally getting just what she deserves. She’s made her bed, and now she can lie in it. Her bad choices are catching up with her and her types.”

Finally, she is on the auction block. The auctioneer cries out, “Who will buy this woman as a slave?” There is silence. Nobody wants her. She’s used up. She has no value. Finally, at the back of the room, one hand came up, and a voice said, “I will buy her. I will buy her back.” It is Hosea, and he is buying her back. The tongues were surely wagging. Here is this prophet, this man of God, buying someone who they all believed to be street trash. But, she happens to be no ordinary piece of street trash – she is also his wife.

One way the preacher gets a handle on a particular text is to look at it from the perspective of the various characters and see how we might relate to the story. It would be easy for me, at this point, to say, “Therefore, let us be like Hosea, and show love to people the world has forgotten.” To be sure, this is something we’re called to do. But there is some honest soul-searching that needs to take place first.

I quickly realized that, in this story, we’re not Hosea. We’re Gomer. We’re not the prophet. We’re the prostitute! Does that make anyone here a little bit uncomfortable? It does me! If you could have chosen your role in this story, would you have chosen to be the prostitute?

But let me offer you a hint for reading the Bible that will make interpreting it so much easier from here on out. Anytime you read a story and there are two characters in it – one who is virtuous and one who is sinful, one who is wise and one who is foolish, one who is good and the other who is bad – always just assume that we’re the bad one. I realize that’s not what the Church has historically done, but trust me, we’re the bad one. We’re always the one who needs redemption, we’re always the one who needs salvation.

Whenever we read such a story and cast ourselves as the virtuous ones who are always on the side of righteousness, we repeat the sin of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day – who thought so highly of themselves and so little of others that they were unable to recognize how truly distant from God they were. They were so busy maintaining the appearance of righteousness that they were unable to discern the stench in their own lives.

The Church is filled with people whose lives are messed up, who don’t have it together, who make enormously bad choices and then must live with the nasty consequences. Now, we may pretend otherwise. We may put on our smiling Sunday faces, our perfect appearances, our images of having it all together, but we are a deeply flawed people. We are not right with God and we are not right with God’s people. Yet Christ chooses us, of all people, to be his bride; we find this image of the church as the bride of Christ in the letters of Paul and in Revelation. This is not a statement that we have it all together and are somehow worthy to be counted as Christ’s bride, but quite the opposite.

In spite of our imperfections and our shortcomings and our flaws, Christ chooses us. In spite of our inability to keep our promises, Christ chooses us. In spite of our brokenness and our deep hurts, Christ chooses us.

This is a story of pure grace, of pure sacrifice, of pure love. This story reminds us that God loves imperfect people. It’s a crystal clear view of God’s love and grace for people who don’t have their act completely together – people like us. We have been conditioned to think of love as a warm gushy feeling. Movies, television, and music all reinforce this idea. In reality, love has very little to do with a certain feeling, but it has everything to do with a commitment.

In the early-90s, when my grandparents were starting to celebrate their second half-century together in marriage, Grandma began to develop signs of Alzheimer’s. Papa, then in his mid-80s, became her primary care-giver, and took care to dress her, feed her, take her to the bathroom, fix her hair, get her medication, and tuck her into bed every night. With personality and memory changes, she was barely a shadow of her former self. Even so, Papa would gently stroke the back of her hand as they sat on the couch together, and tell her several times a day just how much he loved her. It was a love that remained faithful to a vow to cherish and keep her, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, and he kept it until they were parted by death.

This is a love that is patient and kind, that does not seek its own way, that endures all things.

How much more, then, will God keep his vows to us? When everyone else has given up on us, when everyone else has said that we’re worthless and are good for absolutely nothing, when everyone else is ready to throw us away, God is still faithful; and lavishes upon us a love we don’t deserve.

There is a mindset that became very popular in some Christian circles that you had to get your life in order before you could even think of approaching God. You had to clean up all that nasty stuff – the attitudes, the behaviors, the bitterness, the resentment – before you were worthy to be in God’s presence, some people would tell you. From the outside, so many churches have projected themselves little enclaves of perfect people – a place where the children are always well-behaved, and where everyone is always nice & pleasant.

Last week, we were reminded that Jesus’ driving passion was to seek and save the lost. We realized that we are all lost sheep, we are all sheep without a shepherd. This week, we’re all the unfaithful woman. The metaphor is different, but the story is still the same. God loves sinners – lost sheep, unfaithful woman, whatever image you want to latch onto doesn’t matter because the story is the same. For those of who have read your Bible, this story is told and retold so many times that we know it to be the heart of the Gospel – the grace-filled story of a God who continually reaches toward us to do for us what we cannot do on our own.

But, here’s the catch. Sometimes lost people act lost. I shared with you some of the stories of things that have happened in churches that do this – drug paraphernalia in the restrooms, people who are rude to other worshipers and staff, people who give each other the finger in the parking lot. Why do they do this? Because lost people sometimes act lost. Sheep without a shepherd act like sheep without a shepherd!

Now, it got back to me that no sooner had we gotten out of worship when someone said, “I’m not sure we want those kind of people here.” And I just thought, “Excuse me? I don’t think I heard that right.”

Because, “those kind of people” are lost people. And Jesus said he came to seek and save the lost. Those kind of people are the unfaithful woman being sold into slavery on the auction block, and those kind of people are the ones Christ chooses to be his bride called the church.

And here’s the thing – there is not distinction between “those kind of people” and “us kind of people.” We are all “those kind of people.” The lost sheep and the unfaithful woman are our brother and our sister. The lost and the unfaithful is us. We have all been lost. We have all been bound by powers and principalities of this world, we have all been the unfaithful one on the auction block, helpless to speak for ourselves, to save ourselves, to redeem ourselves.

But fortunately for us, there is a redeemer. There is one who will buy us back. Jesus comes to the auction, and when we are all up there on the auction block, Jesus starts to say, “I’ll take that one.” “And yes, I’ve been looking for him, I’ll take him, too.” “I want that one, I’ll take her, too.” And finally, Jesus stretches his arms wide in an embrace that encompasses us all, and he says, “I’ll take the whole lot.”

Church is not a place for perfect people. We need to put a sign out front – no perfect people allowed! The church is not a museum of perfect people, the church is not a showcase of saints, the church is not a place where you have to behave a certain way before you can belong. The church is a hospital for sinners. The church is a place where you belong in the loving embrace of God before you have done a thing to earn God’s favor, and you know what we call that? We call that grace. The church is a place where imperfect people are loved because God showed his love for us in this – while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That proves God’s love toward us. Can I tell you something? People who pretend to be perfect all the time annoy the snot out of me. I am well aware of my limitations and my shortcomings, and I am well-aware that I am not perfect. I sent Pam Walker a weird email this week when I had about 13 other things on my mind, and she wrote back and said, “It’s nice to see you’re not perfect!” Trust me, I am well aware of this and am reminded of it daily.

It was the sin of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day – turned out that acting “holier than thou” just didn’t allow people to be honest with themselves, and all of that self-righteousness made it darn near impossible to grow closer to God and other people.

Here’s a simple truth: we are an imperfect people. But God loves imperfect people. That’s what this story of Hosea and Gomer – the prophet and the prostitute – so readily reminds us. Christ is the perfect groom and we are the imperfect bride. Christ looks lovingly on us, broken and bent and utterly unattractive, and he says, “I’ll take them all,” and immediately we know what grace is all about.

Did you hear about the church that decided to start loving people unconditionally with the love of God? It’s sad, really – just like Jesus, they’ll take anybody.

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